Ojibwe Culture

The Ojibwe speak a language of the Algonkian language family and constitute the largest Indian group north of Mexico. Their extensive pre-contact territory in Canada was mainly north of Lakes Superior and Huron. During historic times, they spread west and south and, today, numerous Ojibwe bands stretch from present-day Ontario in eastern Canada all the way into Montana. Oral traditions of the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi assert that at one time, all three tribes were one people who lived at the Straits of Mackinac. From there, they split off into three different groups. Linguistic, archaeological, and historical evidence confirms that the three tribes descend from a common ethnic origin. The three languages are very similar, but constitute separate languages rather than dialects of one language. The Ojibwe call themselves "Anishinaabeg," which means the "True People" or the "Original People." Other tribes and Europeans called them "Ojibwe" or "Ojibwa," which means "puckered up," probably because the Ojibwe traditionally wore moccasins with a puckered seam on the toe.

Subsistence and Seasonality

The territory of the Ojibwe always has been in a mixed conifer and deciduous forest, with many lakes and rivers which provided ample fish, wild-rice fields, and means for travel. They had an intimate knowledge of forest resources which allowed them to survive during long winters. Resources were spread over the landscape, necessitating a semi-nomadic seasonal round of activities.

Fishing was a year-round activity, pursued differently according to the season. During the summer, women gathered wild foods, including berries, nuts, roots, and wild greens and, where the growing season was long enough, planted small gardens of corn, beans, and squash. Late summer and early fall were the ricing season, and several families worked together to gather and process the rice, which could be stored and used throughout the winter and spring. For the winter, the Ojibwe moved to the deeper woods for hunting deer, moose, wolf, fox, and bear. Deer were usually the most plentiful, and supplied both food and hides for clothing. Meat could also be dried for later use. In winter, men also fished with lures through holes cut in the ice. In spring, the people moved to the sugar camps to gather maple sap and process it into sugar, which was used as a seasoning throughout the year.

Settlement Pattern, Social Organization, and Kinship

Ojibwe people built dome-shaped wigwams of poles lashed together and covered them with woven mats and birchbark. In summer, groups of people lived together in summer villages of several wigwams, using these as a base of operations. Each village group probably ranged over a radius of at least 50 miles for hunting, fishing, and gathering other resources. In winter, these groups were more dispersed, moving out into the extensive hunting territories and living in groups of one or two families. While hunting away from the wigwam or village, men sometimes built peaked lodges consisting of an A-frame, ridgepole, and other poles to form a lean-to which was covered with bark. Rectangular structures covered with bark -- similar to those used as summer houses by tribes farther south -- were sometimes built in the sugarbush.

A number of families living together formed a band of about 20 to 50 people who were related either by blood or by marriage and were bound together by ties of kinship. The bands were relatively independent and interacted with other widely scattered bands for trade and socializing, coming together occasionally for ceremonies and important events which included games and dances. The dispersion of bands across the landscape was necessitated by their hunting, fishing, and gathering lifeway, which required large areas of territory to support each band.

Warm relationships existed between parents and children and between children and their grandparents. Brothers and sisters were respectful and sometimes shy with each other, at least until one of them married. Boys also had special relationships with their maternal uncles, who taught them and acted as advisors. Cross-cousins (mother's brother's children and father's sister's children) were considered potential marriage partners and maintained a "joking relationship" which included teasing and flirting.

Traditionally, the Ojibwes were patrilineal, and had different names for different types of kin relations. In addition to relationships within the nuclear family, each person was a member of a clan-the same as that of their father. The clans were usually named after an animal, bird, or fish. Clans were also exogamous; that is, a Bear Clan man would marry a woman of a different clan and their children would be Bear Clan. In different areas, the number and name of clans varied, but there were at least 20 different clans grouped in phratries, which were larger organizations with differing responsibilities toward one another. For instance, among the Minnesota Ojibwe bands, there were five phratries: Fish (Catfish, Merman, Sturgeon, Pike, Whitefish, and Sucker clans); Crane (Crane and Eagle clans); Loon (Loon, Goose, and Cormorant clans); Bear (Bear clan); and Marten (Marten, Moose, and Reindeer clans).

Leadership and Government

In general, Ojibwe society was loosely organized, and there were few personal differences in equality except those based on age. Important people could gain respect and prestige as outstanding warriors, civil leaders, religious leaders, or shamans, but this seldom made them more powerful in society as compared to everyone else. Often the shaman was the most respected and feared member of the band because of his spiritual power. Band leaders were often those men with a strong reputation as hunters who had significant charisma and influence to hold together their band. In times of disagreements, a family could simply leave and join another band. 

Religious Life, Medicine, and Healing

Ojibwe religious life was largely personal, but was also a daily concern with living appropriately and making one's way through a world filled with spirits which inhabited birds, animals, rocks, and cosmic phenomena including the sun, moon, the four winds, thunder, lightning, and thunderbirds. On a personal basis, one of the most important spirits was an individual's guardian spirit, which was acquired via a dream or vision and could be called on for protection and guidance. Spirits were honored through prayers and tobacco and food offerings, and could sometimes be contacted through shamans. Oral traditions described the world of spirits and provided appropriate models of correct behavior with regard to them.

Spiritual leaders were respected and feared for their supernatural power, which could be used for good or evil. Such power was gained through the vision quest but was not used at least until an individual reached middle age. Shamans operated by performing the shaking-tent rite, which identified spiritual causes of illness, by sucking sources of illness out of patient's bodies, or providing hunting and love charms.

Although religion was largely a personal matter, there were also some religious rituals practiced in the home. Historically, the Midewiwin or Medicine Lodge was the most important communal religious function, and initiates sought health and long life through its teachings. Although the antiquity of the Midewiwin has been doubted by some, its wide spread across the Great Lakes region suggests that it developed among the Ojibwe since it referred most basically to their ideas of cosmology, spiritual health, and individual behavior.

European Contact, the Fur Trade, and Resulting Changes

The Ojibwe are believed to have made contact with Europeans in 1615 when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived at Lake Huron, where some Ojibwe lived. In 1622, one of Champlain's men, Etienne Brule, explored Lake Superior and made contact with Ojibwe groups farther west. Many Ojibwe lived near the rapids of the St. Mary's River, and the French began to refer to the Ojibwe there as "Saulteaux," derived from the French word sault, or rapids. In 1641, French Jesuits first visited the area of Sault Ste. Marie (as they called the rapids of the St. Mary's River), and by 1667 had established a Christian mission there.

Like other Indian tribes, the Ojibwe allied themselves to the French militarily and economically. They traded with the French who entered the Great Lakes in the 1660s, and their desire to obtain European trade goods drove the Ojibwe to expand westward into Lake Superior to find richer fur-bearing lands. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the French and British established trading posts in Ojibwe country to draw them into the fur trade, exchanging European goods such as guns, metal tools, beads, cloth, and alcohol for furs. These items rapidly replaced some traditional manufactures, including stone tools and pottery as well as the bow and arrow. Rather than hunting solely for food, Ojibwe men also spent more time trapping animals for their furs. These animals were often not those ordinarily eaten, which brought about a greater reliance on foodstuffs acquired from traders. In addition, the shift to hunting and trapping smaller furred animals meant less time for hunting deer, which supplied both food and hides for clothing. During the fur trade period, traded cloth rapidly replaced many items of Native clothing with the exception of moccasins.

Like other Indian groups, the Ojibwe were forced westward beginning in the 1640s when the League of the Iroquois began to attack other tribes in the Great Lakes region to monopolize the fur trade. The Ojibwe did not suffer as much as other tribes, however, and by the 1690s they had won some impressive victories against the Iroquois. Because of this, the League of the Iroquois sued for peace with the French and their Indian allies in 1701. However, the fur trade brought about a westward expansion of the Ojibwes as the French built trading posts farther and farther west. The fur trade also brought about changes in leadership, including the shift from a charismatic band leader who had no actual authority to a stronger hereditary leadership position. These leaders were increasingly important to maintain consistently strong relationships with local White traders. Other changes included the introduction of alcohol by traders and growing intermarriage between Ojibwe women and French traders.

The expansion of the Ojibwe into Wisconsin and Minnesota brought them into contact with the Eastern, or Santee, Dakota (commonly known as the Sioux). During the 1730s, the Ojibwe and Dakota began to fight over the region around the western point of Lake Superior and the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. A series of wars lasted until the 1850s. The Ojibwe were generally successful, and managed to push the Dakota farther west into Minnesota and North and South Dakota. The main Ojibwe settlement in Wisconsin at this time was on Madeline Island in Chequamegon Bay, Lake Superior. In 1745, the Ojibwe of Lake Superior began to move inland into Wisconsin, with their first permanent village at Lac Courte Oreilles at the headwaters of the Chippewa River. Later, the Ojibwe expanded into other parts of northern Wisconsin, particularly Lac du Flambeau. The name of this village in French means "Lake of the Flames" because the Ojibwe speared fish at night using torches attached to the end of their birchbark canoes.

Besides being trading partners, the French were also allies. The Ojibwe sided with the French during the wars that France and Britain fought between 1689 and 1763. The Ojibwe were particularly active during the final conflict, the French and Indian War or Seven Years' War, from 1754 to 1763. When France lost Canada and the Midwest to the British between 1761 and 1763, the Ojibwe did not trust their new colonial overlords. Unlike the French, the British treated the Indians with contempt and disdain, causing an Ottawa chief at Detroit named Pontiac to lead a pan-Indian rebellion against the British in 1763. The Ojibwe at the Straits of Mackinac participated along with some Sauk by massacring the entire British army garrison there. However, the Ojibwe of northern Wisconsin and the southern shore of Lake Superior did not join the uprising; Jean Baptiste Cadotte, a trader of French-Canadian and Ojibwe descent, urged them not to fight the British. Their participation would probably not have done much good anyway, since the British suppressed the revolt by 1765. Afterward, the British took a more conciliatory approach to the Indians and established better relations with the tribes. Like most Midwestern Indian groups, the Ojibwe became staunch allies of the British afterward.

The Nineteenth Century

The fur trade prospered in the Lake Superior region during Britain's tenure of control. The United States gained all lands south of the Great Lakes after the American Revolution ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. However, British fur trading companies in Canada, particularly the mighty North West Company, continued to operated trading posts in the Ojibwe lands of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota until 1815. The United States became concerned with the growing British influence in the region. An 1805-1806 expedition led by American army officer Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike attempted to undermine British influence and end the Ojibwe-Dakota wars, but it had little effect. British and French-Canadian traders continued to operate in the Lake Superior country, and the Ojibwe-Dakota war continued. Like other Indians in the Midwest, the Ojibwe sided with the British because they believed that the United States would take their lands. Many Ojibwe became adherents of Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet (or Tenskwatawa), Shawnee brothers in Ohio who preached a doctrine of resisting American expansion. Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet formed a pan-Indian confederacy that fought alongside the British during the War of 1812. Many Ojibwe from the region around Detroit fought against the U.S., but Ojibwe bands in northern Wisconsin generally stayed out of the fighting despite being pro-British.

After the war ended in 1814, the Ojibwe of northern Wisconsin continued to distrust the Americans and often traded with British traders across the border in Canada. They also continued to harbor a hatred for the Dakota, and the war between the two tribes intensified in the early 1800s. The United States tried twice to make peace treaties between the Ojibwe and Dakota. The first was at Prairie du Chien in 1825, and a second treaty was held at Fond du Lac, Minnesota in 1826. Neither resulted in a lasting peace. The only thing that stemmed the violence was the sale of Indian lands to the United States. Once the lands that separated the Ojibwe and the Dakota were purchased and settled by the Americans, warfare between the two tribes ceased.

The federal government made two major land cession treaties with the Wisconsin Ojibwe. The first was in 1837, when the Ojibwe sold most of their land in north-central Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. The next was finalized in 1842, and the Ojibwe ceded their remaining lands in Wisconsin and Michigan's upper peninsula. Soon, American lumberjacks fell upon the rich pine stands, and miners began to exploit the copper mines along the southern shore of Lake Superior.

The United States hoped to remove the Ojibwe from northern Wisconsin in the 1840s, but the Indians did not want to leave their homes. Many Ojibwe chiefs went to Washington in 1849 and begged President Zachary Taylor to allow them to stay. They asserted they had signed the 1842 Treaty thinking they could stay on their ceded lands. Taylor refused to listen to them. After Millard Fillmore became president on Taylor's death in 1850, another Ojibwe delegation visited Washington in 1852. Fillmore was more amenable to the Ojibwe chiefs, and agreed to hold another treaty with them in 1854. By this treaty, the Ojibwe ceded the last of their lands in Minnesota to the United States, and in return received reservations of land. The 1854 Treaty created four of the modern-day Ojibwe reservations in Wisconsin: Bad River, Red Cliff, Lac du Flambeau, and Lac Courte Oreilles.

Once the reservations were created, the Ojibwe were unable to sustain themselves by hunting and gathering, and increasing poverty forced many Ojibwe men to work as lumberjacks for White-owned companies. While lumbering brought some economic benefits to the Wisconsin Ojibwe, it also bought continued land loss. Congress passed the Dawes Act in 1887, designed to help Indians live more like Whites by dividing up reservation lands so they could all own individual farms. The land in northern Wisconsin was not good for farming, and many Ojibwe sold their land to lumber companies to supplement their wages. On some reservations, over 90% of the land passed into White hands.

Cultural changes resulting from the shift to reservation life included the demise of reliance on traditional hunting and gathering, with increasing reliance on supplies from reservation stores and the outside world. In addition, the organization of the clans became less important, except when regulating marriage, since the Ojibwe still maintained that one should marry outside of one's own clan. Intermarriage with Whites and the spread of Christianity also contributed to the breakdown of other social and religious functions. While the Midewiwin remained important among those who maintained a traditional lifestyle, the Drum Dance or Dream Dance was also introduced from the Plains tribes during the 1870s. Within the new structures of reservation life, the Dream Drum provided a cohesive force within smaller communities. In many cases, Drum Dance ceremonies were held immediately after Midewiwin ceremonies and provided important social contacts which traditionally had been forged through inter-band gatherings where socializing, dances, and games took place. While the Chief Dance or Brave dance had been a means to secure spiritual aid for embarking war parties, it took on a role of providing spiritual enforcement for individuals and communities, especially against the threat of illness. Unlike some of the more southern tribes, the introduction of the Peyote religion or Native American Church had little effect on the Ojibwe, except at Lac du Flambeau during the 1940s.

Change in the Twentieth Century

Things began to improve for the Wisconsin Ojibwe in the 20th century. Under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ojibwe communities along the St. Croix River in northwestern Wisconsin and those at Mole Lake in northeastern Wisconsin -- which had not received reservations in the 1854 treaty -- received reservation lands. The St. Croix Ojibwe received 1750 acres in 1938, and the Mole Lake band received 1680 acres in 1937.

In the years after World War II, poverty and lack of job potential on the reservations drove many young Ojibwe to the cities in search of work. The Volunteer Relocation Program, instituted by the federal government in 1954, also sought to move Indian people off the reservations. Relocation offices were set up in major cities to assist relocated individuals and families, and by the 1970s, many Ojibwe were living in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Duluth. Many of these cities also have Indian centers to provide some social and economic structure for Indian people living there, but many Ojibwe regularly travel back and forth from their urban homes to the reservations for family gatherings, social and religious events, and tribal meetings. In more recent years, economic growth in areas around Ojibwe reservations have created jobs for tribal members, and many have returned to the reservations to reintegrate themselves more fully with life there.

Since the early 20th century, tribal governments have become stronger and inter-band contacts and cooperation have also increased, especially with regard to fighting for shared treaty rights and sovereignty issues. The Wisconsin Ojibwes' greatest victory in this arena came in 1983. When the Ojibwe signed the 1837 and 1842 treaties, they reserved the right to hunt and fish on the lands they had ceded to the United States. For many years, the state of Wisconsin convicted Ojibwes who fished and hunted off their reservations without licenses. In January 1983, the federal district court in Chicago affirmed that the two treaties guaranteed Wisconsin Ojibwes' right to hunt and fish on the land they ceded to the United States. Despite their victory, things did not go smoothly when the Ojibwe tried to assert their rights. Ojibwe fishermen were harassed at boat landings throughout northern Wisconsin and often had to withstand racial slurs and physical assaults by non-Indians. The state of Wisconsin attempted unsuccessfully to fight the federal court's decision. It even offered the Wisconsin Ojibwe millions of dollars if they would relinquish their treaty rights, but they refused to enter into any such agreement. During the 1990s, violence at boat landings has died down somewhat. The Wisconsin Ojibwe have helped ease tensions by stocking walleye in the lakes where they spearfish. Indeed, the Ojibwe put more fish into the lakes than they take out, and the number of fish they spear is very small compared to the number non-Indian sport fishermen take out every year.

For many, reservation life was and is a constant struggle to support families through interaction with American society and maintain aspects of traditional life. Despite considerable contact and intermarriage with Whites, many traditional practices survive in the strong use of the Ojibwe language as well as religious practices, oral tradition, knowledge of herbal medicines, traditional crafts, and continued reliance on maple sugaring and collecting wild rice. These resources are augmented with some lumbering, seasonal harvesting of off-reservation fruit crops, wage work, and acting as guides for White fishermen as well as wage work and increasing employment in tribal government and tribal enterprises.